Monday, March 26, 2012

The Origin of the Word "Easter," the date of Easter, and the tradition of Easter eggs


Have you ever wondered why we call the day we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, "Easter," in English?

Some people think that Easter originated from a Pagan holiday, but this is a mistake.

Let me just answer a few questions related to this:

1.   Why is it called "Easter" in English?
2.   Who decided when Easter (Passover weekend, Resurrection Day) would be celebrated by the church?
3.   How about Easter eggs, the Easter bunny, and things like that?

1.  Why is it called "Easter" in English?

Only two languages use the term "Easter" or its equivalent to denote the day that Jesus resurrected: English and German (Ostern).  All other languages use a derivation of the word Pascha (Greek for Pesach, which is Passover in Hebrew), or a translation of the words, Resurrection Day or Great Day.  Here are some examples:
Form of paschaResurrection Day/FeastGreat Day/Night
Spanish—PascuaSerbian—Uskrs or VaskrsSlovak—Veľká Noc
Dutch—PasenChinese—Fùhuó JiéUkrainian—Velykden
Italian—PasquaKorean—BuhwalcholPolish—Wielkanoc
Latin—PaschaVietnamese—Lễ Phục Sinh
Indonesian—Paskah
Portuguese—Páscoa
The English use of the word "Easter" came from German word "Oster."
When Martin Luther translated the Bible into German (New Testament in 1522), he chose the word Oster to refer to the Passover (Pascha).  Oster means "rising from the east" or "sunrise," and it is also an old German word for resurrection.

Before Luther, the Latin Vulgate used Pascha (same as the Greek spelling) and left the word untranslated.  Wycliff (1382), who was the first to publish an English translation of the Latin New Testament, used the word Pask, which is a derivation of the word Pascha.

William Tyndale was the first to translate the Bible into English from the Greek and Hebrew.  His New Testament (1525) uses the word Ester to refer to the Pascha.  He was a contemporary of Luther and influenced by Luther.

When King James Version was created, it used the word "Passover."

Since Easter actually refers to Passover, the proper word for the day that Jesus resurrected should be "Passover Sunday" or "Easter Sunday."

Here is an example:

1 Corinthians 5:7—This passage refers to Christ as the sacrificial Passover lamb, using pascha (πάσχα).

Wycliffe— . . . For Crist offrid is oure pask.

Luther— . . . Denn wir haben auch ein Osterlamm, das ist Christus, für uns geopfert.

Tyndale— . . . For Christ oure esterlambe is offered up for us.

KJV— . . . For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us.

I should note that there is a possibility that the word Easter may have some linguistic relationship to an Anglo-Saxon goddess named Eostre.  There is one historical source from a 7th Century monk named Bede (who was from England) in writing about how various cultures do their calendars wrote that the month of April used to be called Eosturmonath in England.  He says:

"Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated 'Paschal month' and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance."

We don't know anything about Eostre except this.  Anything else you hear about Eostre has no historical basis.  They are mere speculations.  We don't know what kind of goddess she was or whether she was related to hares, rabbits, eggs or fertility or anything like that.  (If anyone tries to say more than what is written above by Bade, ask them to provide primary historical data; not a writing by a so-called historian who has written speculations and theories; there is no other primary historical data)

Even if Bade is correct, that in the 7th Century, they used to call Passover month, Eostre, it does not mean they continued do so.  In fact, Bede said that it was translated as Pascha month even then, and we know that when Wycliff translated the Bible from Latin to English in the 14th Century, he used the term "pask" which is a derivation of the word, Pascha, instead of something related to Eostre.  It was only when Tyndale translated the Bible into English from Greek in the 16th Century that he used the word, Ester to denote Pascha.  And this was influenced by Luther's translation.

Furthermore, even if Bede is correct, the point is that in England, people used to call Passover month Eostremoneth, but they no longer celebrated the goddess of Eostre but celebrated the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  God had redeemed their feast in the name of Jesus.

Ultimately, this is only an issue of the etymology of a word Easter (which is only an issue in English and German), not whether we should celebrate Easter on the date designated (which is universally celebrated throughout the world).

2.   Who decided when Easter (Passover weekend, Resurrection Day) would be celebrated by the church?

The First Council of Nicaea (325), which was a meeting of the major leaders of the church at that time, established the date of Easter.  This is the same council that ruled on the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit as the Triune God.  This is also the same council that adopted the "Nicene Creed," which is the most foundational creed of Christianity.  It is the only creed accepted by all three main divisions of Christianity: Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants.  If you don't honor the decision of this Council, you would probably not honor the decision of the Councils that followed in late 4th Century that decided on the canonization (authoritatively affirmed which books are included and which books are excluded) of the New Testament!

A controversy developed in the early church regarding the correct dating of the Passover and therefore, the date of Easter.  They had traditionally relied on the Jewish calendar which stated that 14th of Nisan is the date of Passover.  However, some argued that the contemporary Jewish calendar of that time was miscalculating the month of Nisan, and therefore, miscalculating the date of the Passover.  They argued for a method of setting the date independent of the Jewish calendar, and setting it on what they believed were the correct way to determine the month of Nisan.
    Although the issue was hotly debated (we have the historical record of the debate), the First Council of Nicaea eventually adopted the current system of celebrating Easter on the Sunday following the full moon after the vernal equinox, which makes Easter fall almost always on the Sunday after the Jewish Passover (but there are some years in which it does not).

    One thing is for sure: the date of Easter has nothing to do with Eostre's feast in April because the date of Easter was set in the 4th Century and the only thing we know about Eostre comes from England in 8th Century.

    3.   How about Easter eggs and stuff?

    During Lent (the period of 46 days leading up to Easter), Catholics were prohibited from consuming meat or dairy products, including eggs; it is thought that on Easter Sunday, they then consumed eggs, which would have been hard-boiled during Lent in order to be preserved enough to eat it on this later date.

    The Easter bunny, candy, and things like that, are like the Santa Claus folklore, primarily pushed by corporations trying to sell things.

    10 comments:

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    David said...

    This fails to mention that Easter is not the same as Passover. Passover is a Jewish holiday and is based on only the lunar calendar. Easter is based on both the solar calendar and the lunar calendar. Easter is observed the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. So some years Easter will coincide with Passover, and some years it will not.

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